LONDON (Reuters) - Flint tools found in an English village show ancient humans settled northern Europe 800,000 years ago, far earlier than previously thought, which could prompt scientists to reassess the capabilities of early humans.
An excavation in the eastern coastal village of Happisburgh reported in the journal Nature revealed over 70 flint tools, probably to cut wood or meat, and provides the first record of human occupation on the edges of the cooler northern forests of Eurasia.
"These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries," said Chris Stringer, a specialist in human origins at London's Natural History Museum, who gave a briefing about the research.
"They have significant implications for our understanding of early human behavior, adaptations and survival, as well as when and how our early forebears colonized Europe after their first departure from Africa."
The study extends findings published in 2005 from Pakefield in Suffolk, eastern England, which suggested humans had managed to reach Britain about 700,000 years ago, when the climate was warm enough to be comparable with the Mediterranean today.
Until then, humans were believed to have colonized only areas south of the Alps and Pyrenees in Europe.
Stringer said the discovery was likely to lead scientists to look again at the capabilities of early humans, since it showed, contrary to previous scientific thinking, that they were able to move to and live in cooler parts of northern Europe.
The evidence from Happisburgh also suggests the site lay on an ancient course of the River Thames, which now runs through central London. It had freshwater pools and marshes on its floodplain, as well as herbivores such as mammoths, rhinos and horses and predators like hyenas and saber-toothed cats.
"The new flint artifacts are incredibly important because, not only are they much earlier than other finds, but they are associated with a unique array of environmental data that gives a clear picture of the vegetation and climate," said Nick Ashton an archaeologist from the British Museum, who also worked on the study.
The researchers believe the humans adapted their way of life to cope with tougher living conditions, with few edible plants and animals, and extremely cold winters. "My personal hunch is that they had some sort of clothing," said Ashton.
The scientists still hope to find human fossils, yet these are elusive -- "the 'holy grail' of our work," according to Stringer.
The ancient human populations were small, made up of a few hundreds, or possibly thousands, and would either be driven out or severely reduced due to the cold climate, only to repopulate approximately every 100,000 years, the scientists said.
Editing by Keith Weir, Kate Kelland and Elizabeth Fullerton